Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The American Way: The Short Cut


We try very hard to make things easy on ourselves. To make things shorter, lighter, faster or more fun for us. We avoid that which takes time or effort; the things that might make us sweat (unless you're a teenage boy, then you're in sports and sweating is cool). We have dishwashers so that we don't have to take the time to wash the dishes by hand. And that's not a bad thing; if I had a dishwasher I could spend more time playing Dinosaurs with The Amazing Omnivorous Child. We have treadmills so that we don't have to take our walks out in the cold. That's fine too, exercise in the cold triggers my asthma. And we have short cuts to get to our destination faster. Sometimes that's okay.

Sometimes it's not. Taking short cuts in the kitchen is a very touchy thing. I've taken some, and some of them worked, some of them were epic failures, and some were just okay. When I was working at the restaurant we had to make our mashed potatoes fresh every day. Left over mashed potatoes are gross and no one would think of serving them to a paying guest. Besides, we generally ran out or almost ran out every night. We boiled something like 50 large russet potatoes every day—just for the mashed potatoes. I needed another 25 every 2 days for potato salad, and a few extras for the lunch menu. It was the job of second shift to take care of the 50 that they needed for the dinner rush (I had different potatoes at lunch), but it was an easy thing for me to bring up a pot full of potatoes and set it to boil while I was getting ready to open. Especially if I had to make potato salad the next day. So I took a short cut and made life a little easier on myself and second shift by doing the potatoes for them. No biggie.

And I've taken short cuts at home; I'm sure you know the kind that I'm talking about. Like adding the milk, butter and cheese packet to the macaroni instead of making the cheese separately and adding the noodles in like the box tells you to. I've been doing that for years, and it makes making the macaroni so much faster. I didn't realize that it also cuts down on the presentation of the dish.

So it's macaroni and cheese for lunch. It's not like it's a filet mignion with a side of braised cabbage and roasted fingerling potatoes! True, but as a chef can I tell you something? They say that “It's 50% presentation.” That's true. Very true. And as good as macaroni is, it's even better when it looks right. I've been making macaroni that looks like it came out of a greasy spoon diner. I was taking the short cut that really only saved, what, five minutes? Then one day, I was trying it differently to get ready for Christmas (I wanted to see if I could still make a cheese sauce before I went and ruined the one that Nick wanted for Christmas Eve dinner). I ended up with a plate of macaroni that looked like I'd paid upwards of $15.00 for AND that would have made my southern grandmother proud.

I had come up with the creamiest, cheesiest cheese sauce to ever grace a macaroni noodle. And the only thing I had done differently was the procedure. I set the noodles aside after they were done; I simmered the butter and milk, and I whisked in the cheese packet. Then, after I had let it simmer a bit more, I added the noodles back in. The sauce got thick after I took it off the heat. It really didn't taste any different, or better. But it did.

So if there is any point to these ramblings, I guess it would be that, while some short cuts are good, sometimes it's better to take the time to do something the hard way, the long way. Sometimes it's worth the extra effort.

Ciao!

--Zizi

.PS. I'm sorry about the lack of pictures, my camera broke.

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